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Stop Comparing Clicks to Sessions

Whether you’re new to digital marketing or a seasoned vet who has recently learned how to make sense of Google Analytics yourself, you will likely run into situations where campaign reports simply don’t match your analytics.

While Google Analytics is a great platform for tracking website behavior, it certainly doesn’t track data the same way log servers count clicks. The difference between the two can cause reports to appear inaccurate or invalid, which can cause some companies to prematurely abandon a potentially great campaign.

Before you withdraw from your digital marketing efforts, let’s first examine the common discrepancy and learn some techniques you can use to improve your marketing investments.

Why Does My Campaign Report Show a High Number of Clicks and Google Analytics Only Reports a Few Sessions?

This is a fair question, especially since products like AdWords and Analytics are made by Google. Because they are both Google products, shouldn’t they both match? No. In many cases, the difference between the number and clicks versus the number of sessions can be way off.

To understand the difference between the number of clicks and the number of sessions, we should discuss how log servers count clicks and how Google Analytics records sessions. This will help explain some of the largest gaps.

How do Log Servers Count Clicks?

When a web user clicks on an ad that contains a link to your website, a “request” is sent to an ad server. As soon as the ad server receives the request, it counts it as a “click”. Nothing stops a request from counting as a click. It doesn’t matter who clicked the link, from what device, how many times, or any technical limitations from the clicker, all “requests” count as clicks.  

On the other hand, sessions are much more complex, as there are many different things that can prevent a click from counting as a session.

What is a Session in Google Analytics?

Google defines a session as a group of interactions a single user takes within a given time frame on your website. By default, a session in Google Analytics ends after thirty minutes of inactivity. This means a single user can basically “click” an ad multiple times and it may or may not count as a session. Unlike the simplicity of a click counting as a “click”, certain parameters must be met for Google Analytics to log a session. 

How Does Google Analytics Register a Session?

Before a session is counted, there are several steps that must happen first.

  1. After a “click”, a user’s browser (Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Firefox, etc.) gets pointed to your landing page.
  2. To load your landing page, the user’s browser makes several requests to your server. Some of the requests will likely include many different files, including images files, videos, CSS, JavaScript, and your Google Analytics tracking code.
  3. The server returns all requested information to the browser, and the browser must then download and “interpret” each file so that it can load the page on the user’s screen.
  4. The user’s browser or device settings must support all files sent by the server to the browser or the intended functionality of the site may not fire, including your Google Analytics tracking code.
  5. If the user’s browser does support all the required file types, the browser will send a separate request to Google Analytics servers.
  6. Assuming nothing interrupts this process and your Google Analytics tracking code is properly installed on the site, a session should finally get recorded.

Some Common Reasons Why Clicks Don’t Count as Sessions

There are many reasons why a click might not count as a session. However, they almost all include a form of interruption to the above process. Some of the most common reasons for why clicks don’t count as sessions include:

  • A single user with multiple clicks
    A single user can click a link/ad as much as they like, and it will only count as a single session provided the session has not ended.
  • Invalid AdWords clicks
    Google does a good job of protecting your ads from fraud. However, although you don’t have to pay for fraudulent clicks, they will often still show in your initial reports.
  • Users bounce too quickly because of…
    • Slow loading landing pages:
      • Too many file requests made to the server, which is common especially in many larger WordPress themes
      • Server issues that may include little disk space, or on shared servers
      • Too much traffic on the site at one time for the size of the server
      • Large images and sliders that include heavy use of JavaScript
      • Interstitials (lead capture pop-ups)
    • Poorly designed websites
    • Accidental clicks: It’s extremely common for users to unintentionally click an ad and either click the back button or close their browser window before the session process was completed.
    • The landing page is the homepage of a website: This typically is one of the slower loading pages on most sites and often causes confusion to users if they don’t immediately see copy that matches their expectations from the ad. 
  • Redirected landing page
    It’s common to use UTM parameters at the end of your URL for paid ads. However, some businesses use link shorteners and/or branded URLs that are different from the site’s domain name. In these cases, the URL that a user clicks is not the same as the landing page. A redirecting URL can often keep Google Analytics code from firing and properly identifying the traffic.
  • Browser preferences
    Many businesses, schools, and government computers automatically block cookies and tracking codes which can often block a click converting to a session. There are also those who purposely disable cookies to prevent advertisers from accessing their data out of fear and skepticism.

Always Expect a Discrepancy Between Clicks and Sessions.

Since we know there will always be a discrepancy between clicks and sessions, we may be better off comparing sessions from campaign to campaign rather than clicks to sessions. However, to improve future campaigns, we may want to consider how many clicks (on average) it takes to get a session.

For example, you ran a campaign that claims you received 500 clicks from your ad. Of those 500 clicks, Google Analytics reported that you received 125 sessions. A simple math calculation can help you figure out that 25 percent of your clicks turned into sessions, or a click-to-sessions ratio of 1:4.

Keep this number as a baseline and use it to improve on future campaigns. A good “sessions-to-clicks” ratio will vary between business types and marketing channels, so I don’t recommend focusing on any standard except for your own.

If you like math, here’s another fun question to ask yourself about your past and future campaigns:

How many clicks do you need to get a qualified lead?

To learn more about improving your “sessions-to-clicks” ratio, or for help calculating how many clicks you need to generate to get a qualified lead, contact our digital marketing and analytics experts here at Compulse Integrating Marketing.